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Song 1: Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

24/12/2010


2010 will be remembered for many things: the forming of the first peacetime coalition government in living memory, a dismal football World Cup and the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. But the one constant background hum – and the thing that may well define 2010 for future generations – was the recession. Depending on who tells you, the current financial state of the western world is anything from uncomfortable to cataclysmic, but regardless of the true severity, the general gist is that you’ve never had it so bad.

Yet despite the rising unemployment, nervousness and severe government policies, the cultural response to the current downturn has been muted at best. In previous generations, songwriters and artists reacted instantly – the Winter of Discontent and 1968’s civil unrest in the US allowed musicians to galvanise whole swathes of nations with either protest songs or street-level observation.

By contrast, 2010’s cultural signifiers, amidst the population’s rising anxiety, have been the resurrection of power-ballad cack Don’t Stop Believin’ and Take That. Even supposedly “serious” artistes with form in addressing social strife, like Arcade Fire and Kanye West (both with new albums in 2010) have shied away from the subject.

That void is partially what makes I Need a Dollar so good: Blacc has broken a silence, sounding relevant and heartfelt without being po-faced. “I don’t know if I’m walking on solid ground ’cause everything around me is crumbling down,” he sings with conviction and soul, articulating the worries of many. And the final two words of the following line – “help me” – are a masterclass in passionate delivery.

Of course, “message” songs are unbearable if they’re not actually good music too, and I Need a Dollar, with its woe-is-me story of redundancy and alcoholism, would’ve run the risk of being incredibly trite were it not so well composed. Thankfully, however, this is great pop that can exist proudly alongside the best socially-aware soul from the 70s; it is a worthy companion to Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield’s best work. Indeed, it’s worth noting that I Need a Dollar can be enjoyed just as much on a lyric-free level: its arrangement is punchy and pithy, expressive and poignant, with a well-measured helping of melancholy to soften the parping brass, and Blacc’s honeyed voice is a subtle combination of the silky-smooth with the downtrodden.

Of course, there are contradictions here: Yes, Blacc may be a successful entertainer signed to a major record label. Yes, he may be co-opting others’ grief, passing it off as his own and then asking the listener to employ him for telling his (false) story about being unemployed. And so, yes, the sentiment on I Need a Dollar could be deemed slightly disingenuous.

But what negates those qualms here is Blacc’s believability – the mirror he is holding up is flawless, and has the considerable added bonus of sounding absolutely delicious. Amid the general head-in-the-sand response to such a severe financial and political era, I Need a Dollar is a revelation. There hasn’t been a more illustrative record in the year just gone.

That’s (nearly) all, folks

23/12/2010

With Race Horses named as my favourite album of 2010, this year’s blog is nearly over: tomorrow morning I’ll write about my number-one song of 2010, and that’ll be that, so here’s another quick cheers for reading and being into it over the past month – I’ve enjoyed all the feedback and it’s surprisingly rewarding to get so many hits. Don’t forget about the index pages here and here for your reminiscing pleasure, and of course the various Spotify playlists to keep you warm over the festive season.

Anyway, merry Christmas, thanks for reading this, and maybe I’ll see you back here next year with another set of musical musings.

Cheers, Sam.x

 

Album 1: Race Horses – Goodbye Falkenberg

23/12/2010

Track 2: Cake


Track 3: Pony


Track 5: Cacen Mamgu


Track 12: Captain Penelope Smith


When the Beatles completed work on Sgt Pepper’s in the early months of 1967, it marked the end of an era for the world’s biggest band. Five further LPs would be released bearing the group’s name, but never again would they record with the cohesion and confidence they had displayed on Pepper’s and on Revolver ten months before that.

Had the Fab Four managed to maintain their trajectory after Sgt Pepper’s, however, they might’ve come up with something like Goodbye Falkenberg. That’s not to say that a debut album from barely-known Welsh youngsters is the rightful heir to what is frequently decreed the greatest record of all time, but simply that it feels entirely comfortable in Pepper’s presence – a rare thing in itself that’s worthy of recognition.

That comfort stems partly from deliberate patronage – “I want to be your Lonely Hearts Club Band”, sings Meilyr Jones with considerable candour on Pony – but it also, and more deeply, comes from the immense feeling of inventiveness and independence that runs equally throughout both records, and that’s what really defines Goodbye Falkenberg: exquisitely produced to sound lush but madcap, with wonderfully eccentric tangents pacing the record, there’s a giddiness and irreverence here combined with a serious sense of intent that’s irresistible.

It’s also a beautifully sequenced record: big singalongs launch the album with a maddeningly addictive fanfare and pave the way perfectly for the more lurching intensity of Cacen Mamgu and the astonishing Voyage to St Louiscious. From there, a reprise of the opening number (perhaps another nod towards Sgt Pepper) offers an anchor point, before three progressively more passionate songs round things out, and the consequence is the feeling of a real musical journey by the record’s end.

Of course, part of what made the Beatles’ best records so impressive is that they sounded like nothing that had gone before, and on that count Goodbye Falkenberg is plainly 43 years late to the party: many of its trademarks – the reversed guitar solos, the minisymphonies full of neat orchestration – sound great but are by no means novel. It’s also worth remembering that debut records with this much self-propulsion and energy are seldom bettered by their authors (cf Oasis, The Strokes etc), so calling Race Horses the next Beatles is clearly spurious.

What is so exciting, though, is that Goodbye Falkenberg dovetails instantly into the great British pop canon not through pastiche or popularity but because of its mindblowingly consistent quality and a berserk loveability. There’s not a song out of place here, and the majority of them contain some of the sweetest lyrics and most memorable melodies of recent years. Witty, adventurous, and astonishingly accomplished for a debut LP, Goodbye Falkenberg is wonderfully accessible yet long-lasting, coherent yet pleasingly jumbled and, most impressively, utterly in keeping with some of the most perfect records ever.

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Download Goodbye Falkenberg or buy the physical edition direct from Fantastic Plastic Records’ website

Stream Goodbye Falkenberg on Spotify

Song 2: Goldfrapp – Rocket

22/12/2010


Around its release in March, much was made of how utterly stuck-in-1984 Rocket sounded. The Van Halen synths, the pumped-up bass, and Alison Goldfrapp mincing around the record’s sleeve in a pink catsuit shooting lasers out of her hand: to call it throwback is kind of the point, one assumes. But there’s nothing wrong with pastiche in pop as long as it’s better than the source from which it’s drawn – and Rocket is exactly that.

What’s such fun about 80s poodle rock and keytar-driven nonsense is the triumphalism and mania that runs throughout its production, the sense that the world isn’t big enough for this three-minute pop song, the idea that subtlety’s for wimps. Rocket has all that in spades. What’s not so good is that the emotional depth of those songs just about runs to knee slides and air-punches, and accordingly Rocket relies on Alison Goldfrapp’s vocal to elevate itself above that trashiness– and the way she does that makes it the wonderful record it is.

Sweet and doe-eyed in the verse then belligerent and strong in the choruses, her delivery is the song’s secret weapon. The opening “started something, thought it could be fun” is as mournful and expressive in its own way as the saddest end of Joni Mitchell’s catalogue, and the woah-oh-ohs that usher in the hook are as life-affirming as they need to be after all that minor-key melancholy. Indeed, so rousing is the chorus, and so apt is it to be sung by thousands in unison, it’s surely only a matter of time until it goes the same way as Village People’s Go West or Domenico Modugno’s Volare and is adopted by football’s terrace songwriters: “Woah-oh-woah, we’ve got Wayne Rooney…” – it’s far from inconceivable.

Indeed, perhaps the only disappointment about Rocket is that it hasn’t become the total anthem that it seems both to deserve and long to be. This blog doesn’t bother itself unduly with the implications of sales figures on a song’s worth, but for a lead single, and one that is so commercially brazen that it virtually leads you to the record shop and thrusts itself into your hands, to peak at 47 in the charts is mystifying. Instead, Rocket should’ve been a number-one hit, played in Balearic clubs and the back of taxis, admired for its braggadocio as much as its tenderness. After all, it’s one of the best pop songs not just of this year but in recent memory – camp, calamitous, instantly familiar and almost impossible to tire of.

Song 3: Vampire Weekend – California English

21/12/2010


About a minute into California English there’s the strangest musical coupling you’ll hear this year, as Ezra Koenig’s heavily autotuned vocal skips over a dainty classical string quartet. But the pairing is bizarre enough to work: like strawberries with balsamic vinegar (try it!), the combination succeeds because the flavours are so diametrically opposed – one the one hand there is a futuristic distortion, on the other pure and regimented orthodoxy. It’s the sound of a band pushing themselves, experimenting and working off their instincts, and that willingness to take chances is wonderfully refreshing in such concentrated blasts as here.

And then there’s the rest of the song to consider, which atones for an only averagely catchy melody with peripheral hooks that lodge into the fabric of one’s internal jukebox – the ooh-ah-oohs of the chorus’ backing vocals, the cute descending guitar line, played with Vampire Weekend’s now-trademark jaunt.

But more than anything else, California English is just gloriously brave music, a gamble paid off and an experiment succeeded. A “part 2” of this song cropped up on the b-side to Cousins, pulling and playing with boundaries even further, suggesting that perhaps the album version didn’t go as far as they would’ve liked. But nonetheless, in bang on 150 seconds, Vampire Weekend show how forward-thinking a pop song can be in 2010, and how much fun it is to taste such odd recipes.

Album 2: Hot Chip – One Life Stand

20/12/2010

Track 2: Hand Me Down Your Love


Track 4: One Life Stand


Track 10:  Take It In


In 1998, Jim Carrey had a niche. He was Ace Ventura, he was Dumb (or Dumber), he was screwball slapstick hilarious madcap brilliance. But then along came The Truman Show, and when he quit the rubber-faced kookiness and played it straight, it was quickly apparent what a brilliant actor he really was. He would return to comedy, but his less forced performances remain the more powerful.

One Life Stand is Hot Chip’s Truman Show moment. After three irreverent, jumbling albums that were frequently brilliant but never wholly loveable, and singles that were recklessly infectious but seldom appropriate off the dancefloor, here is a neatly organised record designed to sound as compelling as possible without resorting to gimmicks. It’s full of joy, excitement and considerable love; there’s precious little irony, and acres of sincerity.

That’s not to say there’s no sense of fun or choas – I Feel Better and We Have Love are perfect bouncing dancefloor fillers, and the arrangements across the whole record, all steel drums meet squelchy synths, are often reassuringly odd. Thankfully there’s no over-earnestness here either: the self-awareness involved in calling the album’s most romantic moment Slush is nicely modest, and the promo video for I Feel Better is one of the most WTF (and entertaining) pieces of film you’ll see all year.

Indeed, One Life Stand is unquestionably heartfelt. In between their last album and this, four of the five members of Hot Chip got married. For men in their late twenties and early thirties, this isn’t particularly remarkable, but it is emblematic of the maturity that’s all over One Life Stand. It’s a dangerous word, “maturity” – synonymous with “boring” and “sensible” – but not in this case: here is a mature record in that it knows itself well enough to have fun without showing off, to dazzle without being overeager and to be humble with no hint of false modesty. It’s an album as solid as its title’s vow: honest, passionate, and also the best thing the band have ever released.

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Download One Life Stand or buy the physical editions direct from Hot Chip’s website

Stream One Life Stand on Spotify

Song 4: James Blake – Limit To Your Love

19/12/2010


For most of 2010, James Blake was slowly making a name for himself constructing astonishingly composed post-dubsteppy electronica, weaving super-addictive fabrics out of samples of Aaliyah and Kelis and wonderfully intimate recordings of an upright piano. And although his two EPs this year were startling – you should own them – and rank among 2010’s best releases, the manner in which he chose to step out from the shadows cast by his laptop screen was something you could never imagine a hyped bedroom producer doing.

Picture Burial or Joy Orbison, or even Four Tet, ditching their genre to sit at a piano and cover an album track by a Canadian singer-songwriter. And then picture them producing it with the same precision, snap and crispness that they apply to their electronic work. With his reimagining of Limit To Your Love, that’s exactly was Blake has done. The first minute sets a reasonably orthodox scene – the elegant piano figure, faithfully reproduced, and Blake’s surprisingly soulful voice – but it’s his producer’s instinct that follows which makes the track tick. He insists on beautifully pregnant pauses, a device that not only allows the track to breathe but also accentuates the hit of the understated and deeply undulating bass. He slowly builds layer over layer, mutating as he goes with an admirable boldness, until the final minute of the song is unexpectedly brooding and melancholic in a way at which Portishead once excelled, and to which Bon Iver alluded in the savagely autotuned and perfectly paced wonder that is Woods.

There are two ways of looking at Limit To Your Love, both of them exciting for such a relatively new talent. The first is to marvel at Blake’s versatility, both in comparison to his more straightforward electronica and in his ability to extract and twist the essence of a beautiful song that isn’t his own. The second is to admire the song in its own right, performed and produced with an intelligence and warmth that more than excuses his slightly cloying glottal stop on each pronunciation of “waterfall”. But both reveal him as sensitive, subtle and frighteningly imaginative in his musical scope; there’s a Midas touch to all his work at the moment, so now we just wait for the album.

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